NPR highlights Philadelphia as a city where ‘tech procurement works’

 (Emma Lee/for NewsWorks, file)

(Emma Lee/for NewsWorks, file)

The government procurement process. Are there four duller words in the English language? (I kid.)

But here’s why you should pay attention: Those four wonky words — short, roughly, for “how the government buys outside goods and services” — may lie at the root of the debacle.

Experts say the process favors lumbering behemoths at the expense of innovative startups.

If you can fix IT procurement, then maybe you can chip away at this astounding statistic: 94 percent of federal IT projects over the past 10 years were unsuccessful. A full 41 percent failed completely.

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But NPR’s Elise Hu says some municipalities are already on the case of IT procurement reform. One of those municipalities is the city of Philadelphia. From a piece airing today on All Things Considered:

[B]idding’s getting easier in the City of Brotherly Love. Philadelphia leaders decided to put technology at the heart of government, hiring [Chief Data Officer Mark] Headd to team up with existing tech talent in the city, and simplify bidding for government projects. To “go where the developers are,” Headd created an account for the city on GitHub, a transparent code repository, and posted its open data policy there.

“It’s good for us, because we’re gonna get more bids, it’s good for [the outside developers], because it’s business they might not otherwise be aware of,” Headd says.

But there’s more than just that.

Procurement reform is also at the heart of the city’s prize-winning FastFWD initiative. I reported last month that the new program will focus on public safety. The idea is to attract and incubate crime-fighting startups. By opening up the city’s procurement process to these social entrepreneurs, FastFWD aims to create a giant carrot for innovation.

On outside public safety contractors alone, the city spends about $200 million every year.

It’s encouraging to see Philadelphia thinking about better (although potentially more risky) ways to dole out tech contracts. If the federal track record is as poor as NPR’s reporting suggests, the city also has this going for it: a low bar.

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